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Why was Pharaoh Punished?
Wasn't G-d the One to "Harden Pharaoh's Heart"?

by Berel Bell

[This article was extracted from a series, so the beginning and end may seem a bit choppy]

The basic approach of the commentaries is that G-d indeed "hardened Pharaoh's heart," but only after he had tortured the Jewish people for a lengthy period of time. This can be seen by simply reading the sequence of events.

Pharaoh's inhumane treatment of the Jewish people, including infanticide and devastating oppression, begins at the opening of the Book of Exodus, before Moses is even born. G-d's first statement of intent, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (Ex. 4:21), was said only after Moses had grown up, ran away to Midian, married and had children. Therefore, it was only after Pharaoh had sinned in the most inhumane manner that G-d stripped him of his free choice.

Unusual Punishment

But what was the purpose of taking away his free choice? Maimonides explains that losing his free choice was itself Pharaoh's punishment. Under normal circumstances, the path of repentance is always open; G-d wanted to show the world that a person could sin so severely that he will be denied the ability to correct it through repentance, causing him to die in that degenerate state. In a way this is the ultimate punishment, since the person is permanently denied the ultimate reward of the World to Come.

But this raises another question: there are numerous ways by which G-d could have punished Pharaoh. The lesson that G-d can deny a person of his free choice can be derived from other Biblical passages, as Maimonides shows. What was the point in punishing Pharaoh in this specific way?

So many Sparks

There are a number of approaches to this issue, the first of which involves the concept of purification of sparks, or birurim.

It is explained in Kabalistic literature that with the creation of the universe, sparks of holiness were spread throughout the world. This process is alluded to in the second verse of the account of Creation (Gen. 1:2), which says that, "the spirit of G-d hovered above the water." The Hebrew word for "hovered," is m'rachefet, and contains five letters. When rearranged, these letters spell out the phrase "288 died" (rachaf-met), which is explained in Kabalistic literature as alluding to the descent of these 288 sparks from their spiritual source above down to the physical world.

These 288 sparks must be purified and elevated in order to bring the world to completeness and redemption. Mystical literature states that 202 out of the total 288 sparks were purified in Egypt. This is alluded to in the verse stating that, "A mixed multitude (erev rav) came up with them" (Ex. 12:38). The Hebrew word, "rav" ("multitude") has a numeric value of 202, referring to the 202 sparks which were elevated. After the Exodus from Egypt, it was left to us to work on the remaining 86, which had split into countless minute sparks.

How? How Long?

Some of the ways in which these sparks can be purified are known to us; others are concealed from us in what is known as the "secret of purification," sod habirurim. The primary purification of the sparks in Egypt was achieved through the exhausting labor of the Jewish people, as explained elsewhere. This is actually one of the explanations of why the work was so hard: the sparks had to be completely elevated before the Jewish people could leave.

If they hadn't worked so hard, the 210 years would not have been long enough; they would have had to remain even longer to elevate the sparks. It was vitally important to elevate every last spark as part of the overall scheme of creation. In addition, these sparks contained various souls which, when purified, would later descend to become vital elements of the Jewish people.

Being Purified Can Be Hard Work

There was another factor as well. The Jews who were enslaved in Egypt were being prepared to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. Egypt is therefore compared by Scripture to a "crucible," which purifies metal by exposing it to intense heat. Only this process can drive out the impurities, and produce pure, untainted gold.
The Egyptian bondage was therefore an integral part of creating the Jewish people. Had they been redeemed "prematurely," the purification would have been incomplete.

Pharaoh would never have allowed this process to be completed had it been up to him. The plagues, as his servants pointed out to him, had virtually destroyed Egypt. There was no point in holding on to the Jews any longer.

But had he let them go earlier, the purification of sparks and the preparation of the Jewish people would not have been completed. The hundreds of years of slavery would have been pointless.

This helps us understand why Pharaoh was punished specifically by taking away his free will. In this way, G-d ensured that the Egyptian exile would last the proper length of time, and that its ultimate purpose be achieved.


Rabbi Berel Bell is a well-known educator, author and lecturer. Many of his classes can be heard on http://www.chassidus.com/audio/. He and his family reside in Montreal, Canada.



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